ACT ONE introduces our main character, 39-year old Belgian Paralympic champion Marieke Vervoort. We enter her life and emotional world, dramatically revealing in powerful vérité the challenges of daily life and her strength facing them down. We meet Marieke at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games, where she wins two medals in women’s wheelchair racing.
Our inciting incident is a 2016 press conference, covered around the world, at which Marieke makes public statements advocating medical aid-in-dying. Her comments catapult her onto the world stage, attracting controversy as a spokesperson for medical aid-in-dying. Returning from Brazil, she has just broken up with her most recent girlfriend. She has ambivalent relations with the Belgian press, as the tabloids frequently present her sexuality as celebrity gossip to sell papers. In vérité scenes, we meet her service dog, Zenn; her crew of health professionals; her parents Jos and Odette who drop in daily to help her manage; and friends, all of whom have become an integral support system, deeply embedded in Marieke’s life and identity.
Marieke introduces her “bucket list”: competing in the Hawai’i Ironman triathlon, conquering indoor skydiving, bungee jumping, and piloting a rescue boat on the coast of Belgium.
Twice a day, nurses visit Marieke’s apartment, giving her shots to manage her pain. They discuss her future plans with the infamous Dr. Wim Distelmans, her personal euthanasia doctor.
In ACT TWO Marieke’s past is revealed in more detail, through archive, narration from her book, and clips from her ongoing video diary. As her disease has progressed, her fierce sense of competition as a top athlete has developed.
We relive the highlights of Marieke’s career: becoming a world-champion and an inspirational figure for the disabled community. She wins Paralympic gold in London; she trains in the Canary Islands; she lives the lifestyle of a celebrity, meeting heads of state, TV personalities and pro-athletes.
The story develops of how she came to embrace the idea of “euthanasie”. Her personal psychologist connected Marieke with Distelmans, and they began what would be a mutually beneficial twelve-year relationship, with him as her doctor and her as his spokeswoman.
When not in a seizure or in pain, Marieke is playful, funny, even silly. She swings back and forth, with rapid-fire speed, from seizures and paralyzing downs to intense highs. She prepares for her biggest bucket-list item, a trip to Japan, her life-long dream. She spends 3 weeks in Japan for her 38th birthday, documenting it herself on her small digital camera. When she returns, she falls into a coma for three days.
As Marieke plans the date for her death, her mother suddenly falls critically ill with pneumonia. Marieke must decide whether to go forward or to remain alive as a support for her parents.
ACT THREE: As Marieke’s mother recovers from two months in intensive care, we see Marieke as a woman hovering between living intensely and physically and emotionally struggling to survive. This act raises central questions about a person’s right to decide the manner of their own death and about what constitutes a life well lived.
Marieke visits Nike headquarters in Oregon. She was formerly sponsored by Nike and delivers a motivational speech to staff. In Portland she meets with Sue Porter, chairwoman of End-of-Life Choices Oregon. They discuss the new laws around the USA, allowing medical aid-in-dying, state by state. The tide has been rapidly turning, with eight states having to date followed Oregon’s lead.
Marieke returns to Lanzarote for one last time to say goodbye to her old friends there. The dramatic landscape of Los Hervideros provides the location where Marieke plans to have her ashes scattered into the wild sea. She begins to prepare for a death in springtime.
Finally, the day comes when she has decided to end her life. Marieke has planned every detail of her funeral, which she asks us to document after her death. We film her goodbyes to her closest friends and her parents. Her closest friend Lieve accompanies Marieke as they follow Dr. Distelmans into her private inner sanctum.
MARIEKE: Death and the Racer is being made with extraordinary access to our main character, Marieke Vervoort and her close family and contacts, including the controversial Dr. Wim Distelmans. It will be neither an advocacy film for a particular political viewpoint nor a straight character portrait, but will consider the central political issues in question as inextricably bound with the texture of an individual life, and vice versa. We hope to draw a unique portrait of a character with disability, challenging traditional representations of athleticism in the process.